Texas Is Poised to Make It Easier to Jail People for Voting Errors

In 2018, 43-year-old Crystal Mason was sentenced to five years in prison in Texas for illegally voting with a criminal record. A few months later, Grand Prairie, Texas, resident Rose Ortega lost her appeal of an eight-year prison sentence for voting as a non-U.S. citizen. When she is released from custody, she will most likely be deported back to Mexico.

Under Senate Bill 9, which is making its way through the Texas legislature, stories like Mason’s and Ortega’s would become more common. The bill would increase criminal penalties for voting and give prosecutors more power to bring charges against voters. And crimes that were previously misdemeanors would become state jail felonies punishable by up to two years in state jail and a fine of up to $10,000. Voting advocates say the anti-democracy provisions — tucked inside SB 9 alongside measures that would strengthen elections — are raising alarms about the future of the right to vote in the state.

Zenén Jaimes Pérez, the advocacy and communications director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, called the bill “another assault on voting rights in Texas.”

“It does that through multiple ways and the main way of doing that is through the broadening of the criminalization of election laws in Texas,” he said. “Things that normally weren’t criminal penalties or didn’t have as high criminal penalties are enhanced under SB 9.”

The lieutenant governor has designated the bill a priority for this legislative session, and it will most likely be put to a vote for the whole Senate in the coming days or weeks.

Under the bill, making a false statement on a voter registration form would be classified as “a state jail felony” instead of a misdemeanor, as it is currently. As written, advocates say that people who vote when they are not eligible can be prosecuted even if they did not intentionally violate election law.

The bill also states that people cannot claim as a defense to prosecution that their ballot was not counted, which was the case when Mason cast a ballot in 2016. Mason did not know she was still ineligible to vote, as she was out of prison on a supervised release program. Voters who are unsure if they are eligible often cast provisional ballots which are not counted if the state determines they are not qualified to vote. According to a group of organizations that wrote a letter opposing the bill, last year in the five largest urban counties, 9,608 voters’ provisional ballots were rejected for reasons that would become criminal if the legislation were to become law.

“The bill would undermine the very purpose of having provisional ballots and likely violates the federal Help America Vote Act,” the letter says.

Under the legislation, it would become a misdemeanor to impede walkways, sidewalks, parking lots, or roads within 1,000 feet of a polling place “in a manner that hinders a person from entering the polling place.” Violators could be punished with up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. The bill would also make it more difficult to assist voters who need help casting a ballot by requiring them to fill out more forms and opening that paperwork to scrutiny to poll workers.

“If I’m going in to help translate for my mom who’s a non-English speaker, I would need to get through further hurdles to be able to do that,” Perez said.

Senator Bryan Hughes, the bill’s Republican sponsor, did not respond to The Appeal’s request for comment.

Voting advocates said they worry about the chilling effects of the bill. If people know that a simple mistake could end up getting them charged with a felony, they are going to be less likely to go cast a ballot.

“There’s red tape, there’s forms, there’s stories of people being prosecuted, there’s cases of people already in jail for simple mistakes that they made, like Crystal Mason, that make you less likely to take that step and go cast a ballot,” Perez said.

Perez called the bill “another cog in the long line of voter suppression in Texas” dating back centuries that has intensified as the state’s minority populations grow and start turning out for elections. In 2018, the Texas electorate was larger and more diverse than previous elections.

“Unfortunately what we’re seeing is that instead of rising to that new energy Texas voters brought in 2018,” Perez said, “Texas officials are trying to dampen the participation that’s carrying certain communities or certain populations that are seen as a threat to the power base of the existing leadership in the state.”

This year, the secretary of state attempted to purge almost 100,000 voters from the rolls who he claimed were not eligible U.S. citizens. The effort failed in February when a federal judge ruled against it. But H. Drew Galloway, the executive director of MOVE Texas, a group that works to mobilize young voters, said SB 9 would legalize what the secretary of state was trying to do.

And voting advocates worry that if Texas were to pass this legislation, other states would follow suit.

“Texas is the testing ground for bad voting rights bills,” Galloway said. “That’s why we’re so concerned about this. If SB 9 passes, this is easily picked up and put into Alabama or Wisconsin or Florida or someplace like that.”

Already, other states are proposing laws that would similarly criminalize voters and give prosecutors power to bring charges for voter fraud. In Tennessee, for example, the secretary of state is supporting legislation that would give prosecutors the power to impose steep fines and even imprison members of voter registration groups who submit too many inaccurate or incomplete registrations.

“We understand that this is a moment not only for Texas but for voters across the nation to protect their rights,” Galloway said.